“When I was born, the word for what I was did not exist.”
Here’s what I’d learned about Circe in school and literature: She was the imperfect, lesser sorceress daughter of the Titan sun god Helios, famous for turning Odysseus’ men into wild pigs. Now she’s so much more. She’s the feminist enchantress who turned men into beasts — because they deserved it.
In “Circe,” Madeline Miller’s recasting of the goddess spans eternities, beginning with a lonely and isolated childhood, followed by her first mortal encounter, the self-discovery of her powers and subsequent banishment and, of course, the many meetings with men stumbling onto the private shores of Aiaia, where she lived in exile.
When Circe meets Odysseus, he arrives mourning for his dead men only to learn she has entrapped the rest and turned them into pigs. With the help of the god Hermes, Odysseus tricks Circe into begging for mercy… and falling in love with him.
"I was not surprised by the portrait of myself," Circe says, "the proud witch undone before the hero's sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime for poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep."
Circe and the wandering Odysseus eventually bear a child named Telegonus, which brings me to the most memorable part of the novel: the profound maternal love and pain Miller weaves into Circe’s character, a divine goddess inching closer and closer to understanding what it means to be mortal.
“When he finally slept … a love so sharp it seemed my flesh lay open. I made a list of all the things I would do for him. Scald off my skin. Tear out my eyes. Walk my feet to bones, if only he would be happy and well.”
With a mystical prose seamlessly strung together and an overarching theme of female empowerment, Miller’s narrative is sure to delight any reader.